The dynamic evolution of cross-cultural memory

Artists from Malta and Poland have contributed to a large scale visual art exhibition, ‘White Memory – 1989/2018’ currently on display at Spazju Kreattiv at St James Cavalier. TEODOR RELJIC spoke to curators Marinella Paderni and Irene Biolchini about how the works showcase the cultural and historical proximity between both countries

Shared memories across the continent
Shared memories across the continent

What would you say is the most compelling connection between art in both Malta and Poland, around the time period relevant to the exhibition?

Memory is one of the most felt themes in international contemporary artistic research, especially in those countries where, since the fall of the Berlin Wall and, after that, the policies of the European Union, have been more involved. The European geopolitical configuration has thus changed from 1989 to today, therefore “calling” the artists to reflect on the development of their cultural identity, especially in those “young” nations which are on the borders of Europe and which have suffered under the failure of foreign domination in the past history. Memory – apart from non-memory – works silently even when it seems to be forgotten: it is an open, dynamic process that re-connects the plots of the past with the present, projecting them towards the future.

White Memory – 1989/2018: Art in Malta and Poland will remain on display at Spazju Kreattiv at St James Cavalier until February 11
White Memory – 1989/2018: Art in Malta and Poland will remain on display at Spazju Kreattiv at St James Cavalier until February 11

In the European Year of Cultural Heritage, the memory of material culture (arts, sciences) and immaterial one (philosophy, literature, anthropology) is the fundamental essence of every present and future identity. Despite their diversity, the artists of this exhibition express with their works the need to look to the memory as a “map of a territory”: only by observing the trend of memory, can people fully understand where we are going.

The title White Memory speaks precisely of this passage from the 20th century idea of a closed memory – one that’s already written and hidden away in archives – to the vision of a living memory, in progress, open to the comparison between similarities and differences, imagination and technology. Malta, like Poland, is a border country, and like all places open to passage, both Malta and Poland reflect the transformations between ancient national values and the new demands of modernity better than any other place.

 

Do you think that the local audience would be aware of the implications of these links between the art of the two countries, and how do you hope that this exhibition will bring it to the fore?

The socio-cultural scenario that gave life to the artworks in the show is surely one important element in the understanding of the exhibition and for the above-mentioned reason, we decided to include highly detailed explanations close to the artworks. In this way, we hope to provide instruments and guidelines. Anyhow, we also encourage and foster the possibility of new interpretations, leaving space to the single spectator to imagine links and connections.

“What is certainly striking is the overwhelming presence of male artists in the local scene”

 

What was your rationale in choosing the participating artists? Was there any particular criteria you employed, and what kind of back-and-forth discussion did you have with them during the curation process?

The choice of the artists emerged from fieldwork: study visits, an in-depth study of their works and their exhibitions, reading of catalogues and books on their research, always maintaining a comparison with the international context. Their original gaze on the themes of memory immediately struck us: both Maltese and Polish artists express personal and unique aspects on the topic, such as the relationship with the territory, with their own culture of origin in relation to the dramas of the European history of the 20th century. We would have liked to add more voices, but this is only one of the chapters of a critical research we have been carrying out for some time.

Working with artists is always a great satisfaction, since their unique gaze on reality opens one up to imagine what they wouldn’t have had before.

The best ideas came about by way of comparison: like the powerful sound installation by Vince Briffa that dialogues in space with the rarefied codes of the wall-drawing by Jakub Woynarowski; the earth sculpture by Victor Augias with the lightbox of a semi-visible landscape by Nicolas Grospierre; or like the golden nugget of Austin Camilleri with Ewa Axelrad’s embrace crown.

Even if the works were produced prior to the exhibition, placing one work next to the other throws their similarities into stark relief. Artists have appreciated this dialogue by showing how the art of two countries on the borders of Europe is much more closely connected than one might think.

 

Would you say an important insight could be gained by placing Maltese works side-by-side with those of artists from another country, and do you believe that the local cultural scenario would benefit from something like this in the long term?

We firmly believe that no cultural and national scene can be understood on its own and that art can move forward only through the confrontation with the Other. Moreover, the Polish artworks were chosen in order to strengthen the analysis of certain concepts and similarities, i.e., the creation of a national identity in a recently young country, which is something that Malta and Poland share.

What’s more, the exhibition can also provide the opportunity to exhibit locally artworks made by some major names of the contemporary scene, such as Althamer and Bałka; or young but nonetheless acclaimed international artists, such as Agnieszka Polska (who won numerous relevant prizes this year) as well as Grospierre, who won the Leone d’Oro with the Polish Pavilion at the Venice Biennale of Architecture in 2008. These international names were associated with emerging young Polish artists, and the same criteria was used when it came to selecting their Maltese counterparts – this was all done as part of an effort to create a kind of legacy of the contemporary scene.

“Rather than reflecting upon national values and celebrating them, we tried to compare identities in order to foster an open dialogue with the Otherness”

We do hope that in the long term, this legacy can grow further... while also hopefully increasing the female presence in the local cultural scene.

 

What do you make of the visual arts scene? What would you change about it?

As art critics we have more of a cultural role than a political one, or to put it another way: what we do can potentially influence the way things are looked at, and so can provide new instruments for understanding and thinking. Curating an exhibition is certainly a militant action, but it reflects a way of perceiving the world and providing new visions, rather than imposing opinions and programmes.

That’s the case of the present exhibition, in which rather than reflecting upon national values and celebrating them, we tried to compare identities in order to foster an open dialogue with the Otherness. What is certainly striking is the overwhelming presence of male artists in the local scene, with a few young and talented exceptions. We do hope that things can move forward very soon.

White Memory – 1989/2018: Art in Malta and Poland will remain on display at Spazju Kreattiv at St James Cavalier, Valletta until February 11. Featured artists include Victor Agius, Paweł Althamer, Norbert Francis Attard, Ewa Axelrad, Miroslaw Balka, Vince Briffa, Austin Camilleri, Gabriel Caruana, Alicja Dobrucka, Nicolas Grospierre, Magda Skupinska, Mark Mangion, Agnieska Polska, Pierre Portelli, Jósef Robakowski, Raphael Vella, Jakub Woynarowski.

This exhibition is supported by the Malta Arts Council and the Polish Institute in Rome and endorsed by the Valletta 2018

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